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People With Active Cancer Hospitalized for COVID-19 More Likely To Die

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When hospitalized for COVID-19, people receiving cancer treatment had a higher risk of dying than people with a history of cancer or people who had never been diagnosed with cancer, according to a study.

The research was published online on June 7, 2021, by the journal Cancer. Read the abstract of “COVID-19 outcomes in hospitalized patients with active cancer: Experiences from a major New York City health care system.”

COVID-19 and cancer
About the study
What this means for you

COVID-19 and cancer

People who are currently being treated for cancer — including breast cancer — have a higher risk of severe illness if they’re diagnosed with COVID-19.

While research is ongoing, it’s still not completely clear how having cancer affects COVID-19 outcomes in people, especially older people and people who have other medical conditions in addition to cancer.

It’s also not completely clear how well COVID-19 vaccines work in people being treated for cancer. An Israeli study published in May 2021 found that 90% of people receiving systemic intravenous cancer treatment had an adequate immune response to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

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About the study

The researchers analyzed the records of 4,186 people hospitalized for COVID-19 between March 1 and May 15, 2020, at facilities that are part of NYU Langone Health in New York City:

  • 233 people had a current cancer diagnosis; the researchers called this having active cancer
  • 3,953 people did not have a current cancer diagnosis; in this group:
    • 216 people were diagnosed with cancer at some point, according to their charts, but there were no notes about treatment
    • 194 people had a previous cancer diagnosis with remission documented in their charts
    • 83 people had either limited cancer information documented in their charts, or the researchers were unable to access records that were outside NYU Langone facilities
    • 3,460 people had never been diagnosed with cancer

Of the people with a current cancer diagnosis, 9.9% had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Compared with people who didn’t have active cancer, people who did have active cancer were:

  • older; the average age for people with active cancer was 71.2 compared with 62.2 for people who didn’t have active cancer
  • more likely to be female
  • more likely to have high blood pressure

Among the 233 people with active cancer:

  • 80 people died
  • 45 people were treated in an intensive care unit (ICU)
  • 92 people died and/or required ICU care

Mortality rates were:

  • 34.33% for people with a current cancer diagnosis
  • 27.64% for people with a history of cancer
  • 19.74% for people who had never been diagnosed with cancer

Among people with active cancer, people diagnosed with blood cancers, such as leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, were more likely to die or need ICU treatment compared with people diagnosed with solid tumors, such as breast cancer.

While the overall results of the study are very troubling, some of the results offered a glimmer of good news:

  • The type of cancer treatment people received wasn’t linked to mortality risk.
  • People who had received cancer treatment within 3 months of being hospitalized with COVID-19 did not have a higher mortality risk.

“We completed a large chart review-based study of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 and found that patients with active cancer, but not a history of cancer, were more likely to die,” senior author Daniel Becker, M.D., said in a statement. “Notably, however, among those hospitalized with active cancer and COVID-19, recent cancer therapy was not associated with worse outcomes. People with active cancer should take precautions against getting COVID-19, including vaccination, but need not avoid therapy for cancer.”

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What this means for you

If you have a current diagnosis of breast cancer, the results of this study are concerning.

It makes sense to talk to your doctor about the study and discuss the best strategies for you to avoid being infected with the COVID-19 virus.

Experts have recommended that most people with cancer or a history of cancer should get a COVID-19 vaccine. Still, you should talk to your doctor about whether getting vaccinated is the right decision for your individual situation.

Even if you’re fully vaccinated, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommend you:

  • talk to your doctor about whether you need to continue to wear a mask and take other precautions, such as physical distancing, if you are receiving medical treatments that can weaken the immune system
  • wear a mask that fits snugly wherever it’s required by law or other rules and regulations
  • wear a mask when you travel on planes, buses, trains, and other types of public transportation
  • wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer after you’ve been in public spaces
  • watch out for symptoms of COVID-19, especially if you’ve been around someone who is sick

Learn more about COVID-19 and what people with breast cancer need to know.

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Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor

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